This is the first time I’m writing a blog post for Unsettled Christianity—or any blog post, for that matter. I want to thank Joel Watts for the opportunity to share these thoughts on Unsettled Christianity.
Schism—a sad possibility
If for some reason you are not familiar with the current state of the United Methodist Church as a denomination, here are some helpful perspectives:
I felt compelled to share my thoughts on the uncertain future of the United Methodist Church because I love the UMC, and even now, am hopeful for its future. I want to make one thing clear: I am absolutely committed to serving the UMC. As a recently ordained elder in full connection with the Rio Texas Conference, I intend to serve Christ’s church through this denomination for as long as it exists, or until, God willing, I retire many decades from now, whichever comes first.
But at this point, to deny the possibility of schism in the UMC is to deny reality. Given that sad reality, I want to share some perspectives about the UMC’s future, especially with respect to the possibility of a schism. If the UMC ceases to exist as one body, I believe our congregations should join existing Christian denominations. I believe that new denominations would only serve to further divide the body of Christ.
Unity in the Body of Christ—a biblical mandate
I have strongly opposed the dissolution of the United Methodist Church for one simple reason: God wants the church to stay united. The psalms tell us “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity” (Psalm 133:1). Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father for unity amongst Christ followers (John 17:20-23). The Apostle Paul reminds us that all believers are part of one body, for we’re all baptized by the same Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). We believe in one God, one faith in Jesus Christ, and one Spirit who gives us the ability to live in peace and unity (Ephesians 4:3-6). That’s why John Wesley preached against the possibility of schism from his own Church of England five years before his death. It’s why Karl Barth referred to the division of the global church as a “scandal” (Church Dogmatics, Volume IV.1, New York: T&T Clark Intl., 1956, pg. 677).
Pursuing Unity—even when a church body splits
Of course, if unity were the only biblical value, no church body would ever split. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches would never have split. Luther never would have left the Catholic Church. The global church would not consist of something like seven major ecclesial global blocs. In the previously cited sermon, John Wesley says that,
Suppose you could not remain in the Church of England without doing something which the word of God forbids, or omitting something which the word of God positively commands; if this were the case, (but blessed be God it is not) you ought to separate from the Church of England.
Nonetheless, the occasional necessity of institutional separation does not negate Scripture’s command for the church to seek unity. A divided church offers a confused and divided witness to the world about the power and love of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, even when one must separate from a church body, one must seek as much unity as possible within the global church.
A Modest Proposal—No New Denominations. Period.
Regardless of the future of the UMC, we’re called as Christ followers to seek, as much as possible and with the Spirit’s help, unity with the global church. Many within the UMC seek such unity, and I applaud them for their efforts. In the seven months I’ve served in my current appointment, I’ve connected with many local pastors from other denominations, and I treasure those connections. Especially with the sad possibility of schism arising over the next few years, I believe we should all take a step back and assess our role within the global church.
Given these reflections, I believe one thing for sure: the world does not need any more Christian denominations. We have already split in so many ways that the global church must seek greater connection, for such connection leads to a stronger witness of the power and love of Jesus Christ. Such unity, of course, does not require uniformity. Different ministries and cultural contexts require different evangelistic and missional strategies, and in many cases different worship styles. Nonetheless, splitting a denomination and forming new denominations, in my opinion, ignores our Christian mandate to exist as a united body of Christ.
It is my hope and prayer that as the various factions within the UMC engage in difficult conversations over the future of our denomination, we form no new denominations. A plethora of denominations already exist that could fill the void should the UMC no longer exist. Conservative/evangelical Methodists (I find myself in this “camp” most often) have much in common with the Wesleyan Church and the Anglican Church in Northern America, for example. Those on the progressive side have a lot in common with plenty of existing mainline denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, ELCA, UCC, and PCUSA.
I would also hope that non-Caucasian and multi-ethnic congregations could join such church bodies. However, if that didn’t work out, there are existing options for those congregations. For example, AME & AME-Zion could offer a home for African American congregations. I’ve also heard colleagues mention the possibility of Spanish-speaking churches linking up with the Mexican Methodist Church. Regardless of how such a scenario would specifically shake out, seeking connections with existing denominations would provide a powerful witness to the Spirit’s ability to draw us together as Christians. Such unity would at least partially mitigate against the inevitable damage that a dissolution of the UMC would create.
I hope none of these contingencies are necessary. It is my hope and prayer that the United Methodist Church stays whole. I hope Methodists can find a way to evangelize and minister to the world for the cause of Jesus Christ as one body. However, regardless of what the future holds for United Methodists, Christ calls us to seek unity with the entire church. The formation of any new denominations, in my humble opinion, would not serve that end.
ADDENDUM: I appreciate the feedback that a reader offered on social media that I did not address the reality of the UMC’s global nature in this post. This is absolutely true, and I’m grateful for that feedback. It should be noted that both the Wesleyan Church and the ACNA are global, or at least closely connected to a global church body. But in discussing the possibility of schism, we should ponder the response of the non-American church to this possibility.